Spielberg Returns to Cyberpunk with Ready Player One

Even if you’re the kind of person who tries their damnedest to remain insulated from our ad-saturated reality, you probably know that the ‘80s are “in” right now. For better or for worse, the movies, music, and fashion of thirty years ago are at the forefront of our society’s collective consciousness. Despite our own propensity for going against the grain of society’s ephemeral whims, it wouldn’t be truthful to say that we here at Neon Dystopia aren’t having our fair share of fun with it while it lasts. After all, the past eight years have yielded a cavalcade of retrofuturistic cyberpunk properties, as well as a worthy successor to one of the most profound and influential science fiction films of all time. There are various theories as to why we’re doomed to relive our parents’ formative years and our own childhoods through new media and consumer goods, but it’s pretty clear that the amalgamate that is Spielberg’s most recent release, Ready Player One, is the culmination of the current generation’s obsession with yesteryear’s pop culture.


Based on the novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One takes place in 2045, five years after the death of James Halliday, trillionaire, and creator of a massive virtual reality network known as the Oasis. Not dissimilar from the consolidative business models that companies like Steam, Spotify, and Netflix follow, the Oasis is essentially the world’s biggest MMO, but one that spans as many copyrighted properties as possible to cram into a single film. Ultimately, in addition to the crushing weight of seemingly unstoppable economic and ecological crises, this leads many to forsake reality for the shiny and new textures of the Oasis, resulting in an economy that essentially hinges on the virtual. After all, if you can imagine it and it doesn’t violate Warner Bros’ copyright agreements, it can happen in the Oasis.

All cynicism aside, the events of Ready Player One are jumpstarted by an open invitation to a Willy Wonka-esque contest by Halliday upon his death to all Oasis users. This contest revolves around the collection of three keys that will lead to Halliday’s Easter egg, an item that will bequeath upon the winner of the contest a massive fortune and a dominant portion of shares in Gregarious Games, the company that owns the rights to the Oasis. In the five-year gap between Halliday’s death and the film’s first events, two factions arise: the Gunters (a portmanteau/mispronunciation of the term “egg hunter”), treasure seekers who search for the Easter egg for their own reasons; and the Sixers, corporate soldiers under the banner of Innovative Online Industries, a megacorporation with intent on turning the Oasis into a pay-to-win game. Our protagonist, Wade Watts, is a small-time Gunter that goes by the gamertag Parzival in the Oasis and begins the film collecting loot from downed opponents in a massive, chaotic, and seemingly unbeatable race that leads to the first of the contest’s three keys. After a brief encounter with his celebrity crush, another lone Gunter known as Art3mis, Parzival discovers how to beat the race and win the first key. Soon after, since he’s unable to keep this secret to himself, Parzival is followed by Art3mis, his closest friend Aech, and loose associates Daito and Sho. Having been the first five Gunters to make any progress in the hunt since the game began, Parzival and company quickly gain notoriety, dubbed the High Five across the Oasis.

ready player one breakfast club parody poster

The High Five: Parzival, Daito, Sho, Aech, and Art3mis

However, Parzival’s claim to fame comes with unexpected consequences. After learning of Parzival’s achievement, the CEO of IOI, Nolan Sorrento, contracts the assistance of the pseudo-menacing I-R0k (played perfectly by TJ Miller) to track Parzival and discover his true identity. After agreeing to meet up with Art3mis at a virtual nightclub designed by James Halliday–and half-mistaking their rendezvous for a date–Parzival divulges his real name, and soon after the nightclub is flooded by a group of Sixers. After this blundered raid, Wade is contacted by Sorrento in the real world and accepts an invite via hologram at the IOI headquarters. At first, Sorrento is amicable towards Wade/Parzival, attempting to relate to his Gunter rival via a falsified passion for pop culture and offering him riches. Wade, however, sees through the act, resulting in a quick turnaround in Sorrento’s attitude. Sorrento threatens to destroy Wade’s home, a makeshift tower formed by a number of trailers stacked on top of one another, where he lives with his aunt and her boyfriend of the week. Fortunately, Wade at this point in the movie is holed up in his hideout inside a van at the bottom of a scrap pile, far enough away from the Stacks to avoid harm. Unfortunately, Sorrento follows through with his plan and orders the detonation of explosives planted on Wade’s tower, killing those inside.

ready player one stacks trailer park

Soon after, Wade finds himself abducted by a resistance group led by Art3mis’ real world identity, Samantha. After getting acquainted in meatspace, they quickly deduce that Halliday’s clue to find the second key involves Halliday’s memory of The Shining, the movie he went to see with his long-lost love, Karen, on their first and only date. This leads the High Five to a simulation of the Overlook Hotel, the setting of the Stanley Kubrick classic. After a somewhat irrelevant sequence vaguely involving The Shining’s most memorable plot points and a platforming challenge involving floating zombie-ghosts, Art3mis becomes the first to obtain the second key. However, this victory is soon cut short as the resistance’s headquarters are discovered and stormed by IOI, which results in Samantha’s incarceration. Wade, however, manages to escape and is picked up by Sho, Daito, and Aech’s real-world counterparts. Together, they hatch a plan to rescue Samantha, which involves hacking Nolan Sorrento’s Oasis rig in a scene that gives curt nods to both Inception and Blade Runnerwhich I, and I’m sure many other cyberpunk audience members, very much appreciated.

ready player one promo art poster

Couldn’t find a picture of the specific reference, uploading promo art of Daito’s cyber-samurai character design instead.

After freeing Samantha in a surprisingly simplistic manner from a nightmarish cell that forces its users to wear Oasis visors at all times, Parzival, Aech, Daito, and Sho make an attempt to rally an army on Planet Doom, where the challenge for the third key has been located and quarantined by IOI in order to keep attempts at gaining the final key for themselves. Samantha, meanwhile, decides to covertly undermine IOI’s plans by infiltrating the ranks of Sixers in their war room. What follows is a spectacular display of dozens of different pop culture references as they duke it out with an infinitely-respawning army of Sixers in a CG battleground, the likes of which have not been seen since the Star Wars prequels, as Parzival races to the final challenge to unlock the door that leads to Halliday’s Easter egg. And, if your knowledge of heartwarming 1980s adventure films is up to snuff, you might be able to deduce how the story ends.


Marking Steven Spielberg’s first science fiction film since his 2002 masterpiece, Minority ReportReady Player One is, ultimately, a celebration of what it means to be a part of nerd culture. Of course, the film has more than its fair share of references to ’80s films, games, and other snippets of the zeitgeist of that era, but budget restrictions, unfortunately, disallow the inclusion of iconic franchises like Star Wars in anything but name or an obscure visual nod (although on at least two separate occasions, Firefly-class cargo haulers can be seen soaring about–a surprising but welcome sight for fans of Joss Whedon’s magnum opus). In order to fill the spaces left behind by these lost IPs, Ready Player One instead opts to include more modern references, such as Halo, The Iron Giant, and hell, even friggin’ BattletoadsAt first, this development gave me pause–as the opening montage scrolled across Planet Minecraft, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy, anticipating an Emoji Moviestyle soulless circle jerk, pimping out various millennial brands in an hours-long ad. However, Spielberg and RP1’s production designers do their best to turn this around, making every blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference into an Easter egg of its own. Before watching this movie, for instance, I was completely unaware of the cult hit The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimensiona zany, absurd space opera that is so difficult to describe that I cannot begin to here without making this into a completely different article. Whatever the case, Ready Player One is so fraught with nods and homages that it seems almost impossible for a single audience member over the age of ten to watch the entire film without seeing something they recognize. This shared experience among audience members is the true value of this film, best exemplified by a moment near the climax of the film in which IOI’s team of oologists (experts on Halliday’s life and another play on the term Easter egg) excitedly cheer at Parzival’s victory. Despite their affiliations, these researchers are, first and foremost, proud geeks and could care less who wins the contest.

ready player one researchers

As I already mentioned, Ready Player One is also a love letter to the culture of the 1980s, not only with its retro visual elements, its soundtrack (the film gloriously opens up with Van Halen’s “Jump” blaring at full volume), and DeLoreans, Keaton-era Batmen, and iconic music video outfits abound, but with its attempts at imitating the typical plot structures and characterizations most commonly seen from movies of that time. The plot itself is reminiscent of ’80s fantasy such as Tron and The Neverending Story, chronicling the adventures of a young man attempting to find the world’s greatest treasure. The characters, on the other hand, better reflect the characters of a John Hughes film, especially The Breakfast Cluba group of innocent misfits bands together to defy the adult regime of the powers-that-be, topped off by Ben Mendelsohn’s portrayal of the oafish authority figure a la Principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Perhaps this is why Spielberg may have been the best choice for the film’s overall direction; after all, few other directors are so interwoven into what comes to mind when the average person looks back thirty years. And in many ways, Spielberg delivers, partially in that he seems to have relinquished some control over the placement of each property. I don’t expect that a man of his position is fully aware of what Overwatch is, but the references to it are abundant. Nor did he take the opportunity to promote his own worksthe only reference to a Spielberg movie that I noticed upon watching was an appearance by the T-Rex from Jurassic Park in the opening race sequence. Instead, Spielberg oftentimes pays tribute to his contemporaries and successors–Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, and Robert Zemeckis, to name a few–in what seems to be a fun and affectionate manner. And don’t think I didn’t notice that the film switches between analog film in the real world and digital in the Oasis, Steven. Very slick.

However, Ready Player One is not without its drawbacks. The biggest issue I had was with the pacing; Ready Player One has a runtime of two hours and twenty minutes but feels like an hour and forty. This is not to say that it feels rushed–however, as a viewer, there were times that I felt overstimulated by what occurred on screen. The two main action sequences–the race for the first key at the beginning of the movie and the battle for the third at the end–are copiously choreographed and littered with reference after reference, but so much occurs that it becomes difficult to keep track of what’s occurring. And it never misses a beat–Ready Player One doesn’t stop moving and therefore does not allow its audience to process any potentially substantial moment, thereby robbing them of emotional impact. This, unfortunately, makes Ready Player One on repeat viewing a bit of a chore and something of a departure from the movies it attempts to emulate. Furthermore, as is with many films based on novels, Ready Player One leaves a lot of details and events from its source material unfulfilled. As a result, it suffers from the fairly unique problem of almost needing to read at least the expositional material from the novel before experiencing the movie. This isn’t to say that the movie can’t be enjoyed without first doing your research; you just won’t be able to understand the plot. Also, due to the movie’s quick pace, the subplot involving James Halliday, his former partner Ogden Morrow, and the aforementioned Karen is almost negligible, which is unfortunate, as this subplot in the book reflects Wade’s own development as a character. However, instead of cutting this element out entirely, the film still retains small snippets of this subplot and the resulting attempts at milking an emotional response from the audience feel half-baked at best. Ultimately, the preference of style and action over moments of reprieve make Ready Player One feel less like the months-long, world-spanning adventure as seen in the book and more like an action flick designed for those of us with short attention spans.

Furthermore, there is the occasional visual inconsistency for the sake of convenience, a sin that is committed regularly in the final battle on Planet Doom. For instance, at one point, Aech, who is at the moment piloting a gigantic mech, hands to Parzival a weapon in the real world as though he’s standing right next to him. This is, as we find out, to conceal the nature of this weapon, but makes things hard to follow. And, if you hadn’t already gleaned this, the Oasis is entirely computer-generated. However, I personally do not mind this detail–given the nature of the Oasis as a virtual world, it makes sense.

Fans of the book seem to be split on the value of the movie. However, I was not a fan of the book–Wade/Parzival’s outlook in Ernest Cline’s debut seems to be that of a “gatekeeper” of sorts for ’80s nerd culture. I-R0k in the novel is not an inept mercenary, but an unfortunate acquaintance of Parzival’s, and is looked down upon for not knowing enough about obscure details pertaining to ’80s culture. Similarly, two of the challenges that Parzival has to complete are simulations of War Games and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which the player must recite the lines and recreate the events of the movies as well as they can (and naturally, Parzival excels at this). Furthermore, Art3mis’ body type in the novel is described as “all curves”, and that the way she presents herself is somehow more real than other female avatars. These attitudes reek of a sort of elitism, and even though Cline’s standards of beauty and value as a person are alternatives to the norm, they are still standards that are designed to exclude those who do not meet them. However, since Cline is credited as one of the screenwriters for the film adaptation, I feel it’s safe to say that he has been able to abandon this outlook (at least temporarily) for better things. For instance, the meeting Parzival has with Nolan Sorrento in the novel comes off as a bit smug; Parzival’s motivation for meeting with Sorrento is purely that of a troll trying to stick it to the man before it devolves into a cartoonishly vile assassination attempt by Sorrento. In the film, however, Wade agrees to meet Sorrento out of fear, and his reactions to the promises of wealth offered to him more closely resemble what an 18-year-old kid would actually feel under those circumstances. This sort of more moderate mentality filters in through many of the emotional changes between the film and the novel, and ultimately left me with a greater sense of unity with what it means to be a geek, so I welcome these changes with open arms.


If you’re a geek, a fanboy, a weeb, or identify with any other sort of semi-derogatory term denoting nerd status, you’ll find a reason to like Ready Player One. Don’t get me wrong, what I’ve been describing might not sound like cyberpunk to you, but I assure you that it hits a lot of the benchmarks. Thematically, the film leans towards a more down-to-earth, humanist view on the nature of reality, and Wade is young and idealistic as opposed to jaded and burnt-out like your typical tech noir antihero. However, the corrupt megacorporation, the Bradburian dystopia, the virtual world that’s used as an escape from reality–all are hallmarks of cyberpunk, and this is a film that knows it. It’s Snow Crash through the eyes of Marty McFly, and it deserves at least one view.

Ready Player One – 7/10

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Written by shadowlink
shadowlink is lost in a sea of information. Cyberpunk helps him cope with his constant future shock.
  1. Thank you for a great analysis!

    I’m of the opinion that RPO is a forward-looking indicator of where cyberpunk needs to go in order for it to not descend into irrelevancy. We are living in the future that the writers of the past tried to envision, and then some. (Neuromancer did not foresee cell phones, for example.) I think we need to reset cyberpunk into a point of view from the now, and then project it into a future that we can envision from here. I also think that the ‘everyman’ protagonist depicted in RPO is a better choice than the bitter anti-hero, in large part because we can all relate to the feeling of being thrown into a high-tech world where we don’t belong.

    And, wow, welcome to the strange and wonderful world of Buckaroo Banzai.

    Last, if you haven’t seen her videos, Jenny Nicholson is a YouTube treasure. Here is her take on RPO:



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